The Nameless Horror

2017, then

So here we are again, blowing away the cobwebs once more. The year’s been insanely busy with editing work - at one point before Easter I was booking up short stories over two months in advance, and it’s taken me a month to finish writing this post - and that’s limited lots of things, like work on my own stuff, reading for fun, writing about the latter. And dealing with the existential dread that comes with living with 2017’s political fucknuttery, of course.

So here’s a couple of things in brief form.

Bullet Gal (Andrez Bergen)

It took me a long time to get to this and I feel bad for that because Andrew’s had one hell of a year (and it’s getting little better; he’s currently thousands of miles from his family again undergoing further rehab for a stroke). But it was worth it - this is a return to Heropa (a city whose first outing I loved) and a look at its most legendary superhero. It’s punchy, wryly funny, and carries all the flair and imagination you’d expect from Bergen. He’s had a bastard of a year so do yourself a favour and buy some/all of his stuff.

Then She Was Gone (Luca Veste)

Many, many years ago, Luca wrote reviews and said lots of nice things about my Levels books. Somehow in the interim he’s written a zillion books of his own and minstrels fanfare his every entrance at publishing events. He sent me this ages ago and I read it ages ago and said nothing because I’m a bad person. This is accomplished and engaging British police procedural and I’d happily read the others in the series. The serial killer standalone he’s got out next year looks swish too.

Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (Alexandra Sokoloff)

I do enjoy peering into approaches to storycrafting, and this is a good one. More practically-minded than ones like Into The Woods, less prescriptive than most. There’s some repetition in the breakdowns, particularly Jaws, but that’s forgivable and there’s plenty of good stuff here for writers of all stripes.

Save The Cat! (Blake Snyder)

This, however, is (mostly) not. There’s some decent general advice, though nothing not covered elsewhere, and a whole lot of trumpet-blowing and guff. It’s also gratingly ’old Hollywood’ in its treatment of gender at times (maybe more so because I read Alex’s book right before this one). I know Snyder had a track record - selling thirteen scripts (IIRC), two of which were made, and teaching widely - so he was no idiot and maybe the style carried better in person, but I kept being reminded that the two he did see made were Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (though he only mentions this one once, presumably because his screenplay won a Razzie and the movie is widely regarded as one of the worst mainstream films ever made) and Blank Check (only mildly better regarded), and maybe my expectations lowered to match. In all honesty, Michael Moorcock’s ’Novel In Three Days’ advice or the Lester Dent Master Plot are probably as useful or more so, easier to digest, and above all, free.

To Catch A Rabbit (Helen Cadbury)

Helen tragically died a few weeks ago, but she was a fine writer and her work has all the awareness and sharpness of the best Britcrime. Go read.

So there we go. In between, I’ve made it to Harrogate crime festival for the first time in years, released a complete and bundled version of Portal of the Gods into the wild, and stopped completely neglecting my own self-pubbed work, for now at least.

In the meantime, back to editing.

Not dead, PORTAL OF THE GODS starts

It’s perfectly normal not to post anything beyond a poor bird pun for seven months. Shut up.

In all seriousness, I’ve not had much to post; I’ve fallen off the reading wagon, partly as a result of starting a bunch of things that didn’t grab like I’d hoped, partly as a result of time and editing workload. It’s harder to read for fun when you’re reading a lot for work. But I’m embarking on clearing some of the backlog of completed-and-unused output gathering dust on my hard drive, and my workload has eased off for the moment (so if you’re looking for an editor then now’s the time…), so here’s a thing! A thing that is, in fact, the first of several things!

Portal of the Gods 1: Shadow

Portal of the Gods 1: Shadow

In the foothills of the Andes there’s a relic of a pre-human civilization, the gateway through which the gods themselves supposedly first walked the Earth. A door to other worlds, other times. A portal through which you can take back everything you’ve ever lost, or ever had taken from you, if you can master it.

Jack Harker’s a washed-up adventure junkie with a knack for languages and getting himself in trouble. But when armed strangers break into his house looking for his parents’ old notes on the legendary lost city of Huayacapo, they inadvertently draw him into a secret war that’s been raging for a century and a half, a shadow conflict to unearth the past, and to control the future.

It’s going to be a long, strange road, and it starts here.

Portal of the Gods is an episodic secret history conspiracy thriller of which SHADOW is the first, shortest, instalment.

Find it on my own site, or else at Amz US, Amz UK, Amz Ca (etc.), Kobo, iBooks.

The two of you (hi, mom!) reading this who also know my Tragic Backstory may know that my agent quit on me while I was midway through a book in a genre he’d encouraged me to try in the first place, without telling me. This is the book. (I’ve since busied myself writing something else and I’m now finally getting my shit together to get a fresh agent.)

It was planned and written in four discreet sections (aside from a prologue and epilogue, split by geography; this is a pulp-ish adventure story and I’d be damned if I was going to write one of those without an element of line-crosses-map-with-accompanying-plane-footage to it), and so I’m releasing it in episodes, cleaning and tidying as I go. (Badly, as it turns out; I managed to use the UK-spelling version of the draft for SHADOW because I’m a fucking idiot, but it’s such a hoop-jumping process getting price-matched on Amazon that I’m buggered if I’m changing it now. Americans will have to live with “favour” etc. until the second episode.)

This, the first, is free (or will be, once the various branches of Amazon catch up with the US), with the other three, novella-length entries costing a pittance. I’m a fan of try-before-you-buy and this seemed like the best way of doing it.

Lost cities! Secret histories! A conspiracy that has absolutely nothing to do for once with either big business or the Catholic Church! And so on. In truth, while I took a pulp sensibility to the general story, and as much as I enjoy a spot of Lester Dent/DOC SAVAGE, I’ve not used it in the prose, and I’ve been careful to try to make everything grounded. No screaming dames, no thousand-year-old deathtraps that mysteriously still work with perfect mechanical precision, no action without a real sense of threat here. But there may be monsters and exotic locations and undead horrors as the series progresses…


My God, it’s been nearly four months. I mean, I’ve been busy, but not that busy. Anyway, here’s some reading done.

The Dark Defiles (Richard Morgan)

The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles wraps up Richard Morgan’s trilogy of delightfully visceral fantasy novels that started with The Steel Remains. I loved that, really loved The Cold Commands and so the last was an easy Christmas present. It did take ages to read, but this was a combination of a pile of work, other things eating into my reading time, and the fact that this isn’t a short read; it can’t be much under 180k words if it’s not more.

The series’ strengths have always been its very grounded characters, its conflicted background (there are no all-out good guys here), and its punchy writing, and all of those are present and correct here too. The first is especially impressive given this is the culmination of a fairly epic fantasy tale, and even though the fate of the world hangs in the balance and Gil, Egar and Archeth have seen their fortunes rise and fall throughout, there’s no pomp or posturing here at all. Motivations remain base and human.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’d happily recommend it to anyone so long as they don’t mind a whole load of sex, violence and bad language (and I suspect I don’t know that many who do).

But, but. I had one quibble, and I think it’s one in some form or another others have had too: I wish it had been longer. The story ends where it does because Gil’s story ends there, and I get that and I get the intent to keep the epic stuff as backdrop in a sort of subversion of the norm. But the backdrop drives so much of the actual narrative that to leave all but one facet of it (the Aldrain) completely unresolved left it feeling incomplete, like there was a fourth book coming.

The whole reason the characters end up where they are at the end of the second book and the start of the third is that their Kiriath helmsman (a sort of AI, if you like) is trying to set those on the expedition up as a cabal to overthrow mad Emperor Jhiral and put Archeth on the throne so she can carry on the Kiriath mission of shepherding humanity (minor spoiler; this is revealed early). She refuses to have anything to do with it when she finds out, and by this point Jhiral has for some reason launched a war with the League causing them all sorts of problems, the fate of nations hanging in the balance, shaping their every choice and action… and the story ends with no one less than a thousand miles from home and everything still going on.

There’s all sorts of talk about how the church suppressed in The Cold Commands will use it to reestablish their importance and threaten this and that, talk about what it’ll do to the League, to Jhiral’s reputation and… you’ll have to fill all that in yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. I do wish those elements had either been reduced in terms of the space allocated or else tied off just a little more, but to be frank “I wish there’d been more” - and who ever asked for more political outcomes in their fantasy reading? - is scant complaint indeed. Thoroughly impressive.

Winter’s Bone (Daniel Woodrell)

Winter’s Bone

I know, it’s a classic, I’m late to the party, blah blah blah. Still, I’ve now read it and you should too.

Winter’s Bone is about as opposite to The Dark Defiles in terms of its scale, size, and setting as it’s possible to get. It’s a short, sharp piece of work dealing with the fate of the Ozark family led by eldest daughter Ree Dolly after the disappearance of her court-bound meth cook father and the complex web of interconnected local family offshoots she has to deal with to get to the truth before she loses their house because her dad used it to pay his bond.

It’s pretty bleak stuff, dealing in rural poverty, family ties, and what it takes to get you through as much as it does (or more than it does, really; it’s all-consuming backdrop, but backdrop nonetheless) life in the meth business.

The writing’s superb, blisteringly cold and hard without veering into suffering porn territory. Things aren’t easy for the Dollys but it’s a life and it has high points as well as low. Ree’s extremely well drawn, as are most of the supporting cast, and the local landscape, the valley the Dollys and their relatives have lived in for generations is wonderfully realized. Bleak, then, without being grim or completely hopeless.

It’s also a fine example of a story told in part by omission, and without a final confrontation between two sides. While it’s the fate of Ree’s father that propels her, and (minor spoilers ahoy) it does indeed turn out he’s dead as she suspects for a reason that would give people motive, she never finds out, and you never find out, who killed him; Uncle Teardrop tells her he knows, and by inference he’s not expecting to be returning, one way or another, from dealing with that, but that event isn’t a part of Ree’s story.

Really good. Strong writing, strong voice, very human story. Loved it, and I’ll be reading more Woodrell.


The holidays are a time of year for gathering with family, huddling against the onset of winter, and apparently reading books about story structure, a subject which I’m well aware is 95% wank and largely instinctive anyway, but still something I find interesting.

Into The Woods (John Yorke)

The approach taken by former Life On Mars (and many others) writer, drama commissioning guy for C4, et al. John Yorke is a little different to many of his contemporaries in so much as he claims not to be pushing a particular structure (“3 acts or none!”, “Give me a Hero’s Journey or give me death!”, etc.) but looking at the root shape underlying most (Western; it’s never stated, because sadly it generally gets ignored, but there are other approaches elsewhere) storytelling through history, regardless of how it’s broken down, what type of story it is, or what medium it appears in. He also goes into the why of this shape (though at nothing like the length you’re led to believe; it’s the last 20 pages out of 230), what it says about/how it’s shaped by our psychology, and, interestingly, why it almost automatically dooms series writing with developing characters to around three outings at most.

On the way, he covers the evolution of the “standard” forms from Ancient Greece, the five-act theatrical standard and how that arose from candle length and audience comfort (the need, then, for regular breaks), then three-act and how that came with gas/electric light and better seating, via Campbell, Vogler, and all the exceptions and variances throughout.

As a writing manual, it’s good, particularly on the character side. I particularly like the emphasis on needing a good antagonist (in whichever form that comes), and why they need to be there. The difference in writing series characters - tinged slightly gratingly by unfortunate terms like “two-dimensional” and “genre writing” that aren’t actually as loaded in context but which I imagine would easily put people’s backs out - and the perils involved are also something I’ve not seen before in a book of this type. His history of screenwriting theory and trends is thorough and engaging (and, if you’re writing in the field today, necessary).

There are some quibbles. The required disclaimer, repeated on occasion, that there will always be exceptions to any rule makes the advice woollier than it might be, I’m not sure there isn’t a bunch of “A=B because B=A” reasoning in the psychology, whose heavy Jungian reliance I’m not sure is entirely advisable, and for all that he claims that all standard structures are merely ways of breaking apart the root story, he tends to outline everything in terms of five acts (which is fine, just seems a touch inconsistent).

All told, though, this is an engaging and thorough dissection of story craft that’s far broader, and thus more helpful, than many other attempts I’ve read.

Three Uses Of The Knife (David Mamet)

A reference in Into The Woods led me to this, Mamet’s short essay(s) from 1998 on what makes good drama (which, pro tip, isn’t available as an ebook in the UK so if you’re a Brit you may have to, uh, trick stores into thinking you’re in the US or get an American friend to pass it along minus DRM).

Mamet - it goes without saying - knows his stuff, and there’s some good material here. Not in terms of framing a story, but in terms of what drives audience interest in a scene or a character, and, again, the why of it (to the extent that some of Yorke’s book reads like a lengthening of what’s here).

It’s also wrapped up in a lot of politics (on which Mamet went on to write a separate book a couple of years ago) and railing against the rise of 700-channel TV culture (IIRC, likewise), and the somewhat scattershot structure means the whole thing reads like the recorded ramblings of your supremely talented but also deeply cranky playwright uncle after a couple of glasses of sherry.

That said, it’s worth reading. Not worth paying print prices for now - in hardcopy you’re looking at $20-30 for, ooh, probably 15k ish words, about half of which go for a long wander - but otherwise.